Find freedom amidst focus, Oxford-bound Old Boy says

Posted 29th September 2015

An Oxford university-bound young research scientist who grew up on a sheep farm at Walcha believes if he had set that as a goal at his own school graduation, it may never have happened.

Telling valedicts and their families at The Armidale School on 18 September, former TAS senior prefect Robbie Oppenheimer said it was wagging university lectures to go on a field trip to Central Australia that gave him freedom to find his true passions.

“Volunteering to go on that expedition, sitting around the campfire chatting about the complexity of one of the most volatile eco-systems in the world, helped me rediscover my love of learning about nature and science – and suddenly it felt OK to approach professors and to start my own research projects when I returned.”

This included putting together a team of students which funded project to genetically engineer microbes that would degrade a groundwater pollutant – a project they presented at Massachusetts IT, in Boston, USA. Armed with confidence, Robbie then met with the NSW Chief Scientist and successfully lobbied the State government to create an annual $100,000 grant to fund student-driven research. Later, he co-captained Team Echidna, a research team from the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute which programmed DNA to detect disease by lighting it up, which won the grand prize at a competition at Harvard University.

Next week he starts his PhD in Synthetic Biology at Oxford University.

“If I had aimed towards where I am now when I was sitting where you are, it would have changed everything. I wouldn’t have travelled on a gap year; I would have gone straight to uni, picked different subjects, worked my butt off, narrowed my focus, never skipped class or taken a risk,” he said.

“There are surprises and accidents and discoveries and opportunities that you will miss if you’re blinded by a vision of what you’re meant to become. If you can be free of your preconceptions about the world and about who you are, then you will see opportunities every day to question, to explore, discover, and innovate. There are so many rich experiences waiting for you and I hope that they’re full of surprises.”

Robbie & Ali 2

Robbie Oppenheimer and winner of the Headmaster’s Prize for Academic Excellence Ali Ahsan at the TAS Valedictory presentation ceremony